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Russell Smith on the novel’s fight to stay relevant Add to ...

I’ll admit, one of the reasons I wanted to write novels is that it would make me cool. What do I mean by cool? It’s hard to say. It was romantic and intellectual, yes, but it also seemed, in an undefinable way, urban: I had images in my head of salons and bars and green gardenias in the buttonhole, images that came mostly from literature itself. I would live in a big city and be in touch with the latest things and be in some way representative of contemporary culture.

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How painful it is, then, to realize that the novel has slowly then suddenly itself become uncool, not representative of contemporary culture at all. According, at least, to the people in bars and salons – now represented by linked computer screens – in big cities. The latest manifestation of this discomfort comes from a widely-circulated blog post on the New York Review of Books site, by the British-born author Tim Parks. Titled “Trapped Inside the Novel,” the essay is a somewhat melancholy admission that reading novels no longer satisfies this noted novelist.

He is influenced, he admits, by the theories of David Shields, whose 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger asserted that the straightforward fictional story was no longer adequate to satisfy a contemporary psyche, stimulated as it is by constant and simultaneous streams of information and images. It proposed a new kind of mash-up art in which fact and fiction, originality and appropriation were promiscuously visited. Without proposing a new art form as specific as this, Parks says that he shares a kind of fatigue with the conventional realist novel. Mostly, it seems, due to its repetitiveness: “More and more I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned: the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness...” That, of course, is a description of a perfect novel, to me – the kind of thing every creative-writing student is trying to master. There must be a bit of self-doubt coming out here, as Parks could be describing some of his own novels.

But Parks finds the goal of most fictional characters – the overcoming of adversity – to be a predictable one: “My problem with the grand traditional novel – or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included – is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering.” In short, novels give one the false sense that everybody’s life has meaning. Our lives are in fact a series of perceptions of present moments, not a unification of past and future.

How to capture this? Parks is not sure what would replace meaningful triumphalism. He likes experimentalist modernism, the anti-novels of Beckett, and the post-modern short stories of Lydia Davis. But even variants on traditional narrative are, to Parks, references to those same narratives: “... this kind of writing, and with it the whole postmodern adventure, seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form.”

Of course the novel has been deemed to be irrelevant and out of date at several points before in its relentless ascendancy. It is always in crisis and yet it is always popular – as Parks admits, the more conventional, the more popular: historical novels seem to be the most popular of all.

But this particular critique – that purely make-believe narrative is unconvincing in a world of so much instant information and exchange, so much “reality” – is unique to the Internet age. We’ve seen it crop up a lot lately: it was part of the Internet’s largely negative reaction to Dave Eggers’ most recent novel The Circle, for example. Much of that criticism suggested that Eggers would have been better off writing some kind of researched journalism than a didactic fantasy, and much of it gathered outrage over the fact that the author himself refused to participate in the ideological discussions around technology currently happening in that most contemporary of forums, Twitter. That fact alone seemed to make his novel out of date.

Novelists are asked to be anything but fabulists these days. The online magazine Hazlitt, a possession of the Random House publishing empire, which itself publishes most of the fiction in the world, doesn’t mind interviewing fiction writers. But it has no regular, serious and prominent short-fiction section. That seems to me like a betrayal of Random House’s entire glorious history. No one else seems to mind. The essayists on that site are the cleverest around. When the cleverest writers and editors are nervous about (embarrassed by?) fiction, one has to wonder if its moment of cool is over.

Will we be happy with variations on the article, the essay, the post, the update, the reference, the confession, as our literary diet from now on? Will the careful construction of imaginary rooms with unreal people in them – all those Alice Munro kitchens, all those Mary Gaitskill bedrooms – seem faintly sepia-toned from now on, like the quaint hobby of country crafts-people, like watercolours?

 

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